It’s midnight and I’m six floors below the Rue Montmartre in Paris to meet Jean-Benoît Dunckel of the popular music duo AIR at exclusive Club Silencio.
He arrives directly from rehearsal—AIR is preparing for a string of concerts in June, some of which will be held in the U.S.—and immediately orders a Margarita.
I am a bit thrown that there’s no cocktail menu, but the bartender explains that the bar’s signature drinks weren’t really popular with the customers. These days, he adds, most people tend to order Moscow Mules and Gin & Tonics. (Thanks to well-orchestrated marketing campaigns, many drinkers he said request Hendrick’s or Monkey 47 for the latter concoction. Considering that this is exactly what I got, I stare at my drink incriminatingly.)
The Margarita is the only cocktail that Dunckel has been drinking lately and he usually orders it here. (For the record, Club Silencio uses Tequila Avión and triple sec to make it.) As we enjoy our drinks, he points to a couch where three glittery creatures are sipping Champagne, and where a couple of years ago he was sitting with David Lynch.
He’d hung out with the film director before, at his house in Los Angeles. After listening to some of AIR’s music, Lynch pointed a remote control toward some velvet curtains that dramatically parted to reveal three enormous speakers. He then played some of his own music, which Dunckel describes as sounding like “a mix of techno and scary, religious French dark music with choirs.”
As a matter of fact, Lynch was involved in the design of the trendy Club Silencio, which takes its name from the enigmatic Silencio theater in his film Mulholland Drive. All gold, black, and red, with different rooms with their own cinematic atmospheres, the setting is undeniably striking. Tonight, the clientele is a mix of sophisticated partygoers, and in the past few months you might have run into Beyoncé, Amber Heard, Daft Punk, or Aziz Ansari.
Dunckel doesn’t drink a lot of hard liquor, he admits—two drinks are enough to give him a strong buzz—the main reason is that he says drinking interferes with his creative process. “I play a lot of piano,” he says, “and when you drink it diminishes the sensitivity in your fingers. Playing music is about sensation, feeling the instrument with your body, and alcohol slows me down.”
But he does see a lot of commonality between drinks and music: “Music is a fluid, like alcohol. It puts me in a state of trance, I can feel my muscles relaxing,” he explains. “When I was a child, I remember thinking that some chords have the ability to make you fall in love. Alcohol and music both allow you to let go, to say intimate things.”
On tour, he does drink during flights “whatever they have” to calm his nerves, and will usually have a shot of vodka before going on stage. Not only does it help with pre-show jitters, but it frees the voice as well, he says.
At the beginning of his career, wanting to experience the hardships that his idol Serge Gainsbourg went through, he played in “the most rotten bars of the St. Germain [neighborhood], the type where you find a smashed sandwich underneath the piano pedal.” But after the huge success of AIR’s album Moon Safari, he and his band mate Nicolas Godin toured the world in style. One of the stops was at the Sundance Film Festival, where they met up with Thomas Mars from Phoenix, Spike Jonze, Sofia and Roman Coppola, and the cast of The Virgin Suicides—AIR composed the film’s soundtrack. “We went to these incredible parties full of people of the industry,” he said. “In this mountain town setting, with a view on the ski slopes, speakers were blasting hip hop, people were drinking in hot tubs… The party was even going on in the toilets.”
It is around this same time that the duo spent four weeks in LA, staying at the legendary Chateau Marmont—all expenses paid by their record label. Dunckel recalls hanging out with many artist friends, including Beck and producer Tony Hoffer, and all-night parties in their hotel suite drinking bottles of Californian wine.
Dunckel’s favorite wine is the Bourgogne Côte de Nuits and he actually comes from a family of wine lovers. “When there were events, we would drink Champagne for aperitif, for example Laurent-Perrier or Veuve Clicquot, and then wine at the table,” he remembers. “And at 15, I was allowed to drink wine. My father would have a whiskey or a digestif after the meal. My grandmother, who is 99 years old, still drinks wine from the Loire Valley, although now she dilutes it with water, which is kind of disgusting,” he says with a laugh.
AIR’s sound is very sensual and Dunckel evokes sparkling wine to describe the effect of his songs. “Champagne is omnipresent in my music, bubbles that fizzle and go to your head are a musical criteria for me—something light and resonating, with melodies going higher and higher.”
Considering that he’s played around the globe, were does he best like to drink? He really loves the south of France, he says, recounting a specific night in the Bordeaux area. He and Godin were in the midst of a world tour and the conditions were very difficult. It got so bad they had decided to tell their managers that they could not go on like this. But, as if the universe wanted to contradict them, the duo ended up staying “in a beautiful castle, with a huge fireplace,” he says. “On a quiet summer night with countless stars in the sky, we were drinking this amazing old whiskey by the fire. It was magical.”
We end on that high note and as I walk through the Silencio, the decor of muted gold and textured blacks lends a slightly menacing air to the crisp suits and Italian shoes of a group of people passing by. Once I resurface outside into the early hours of the day, faced with an empty street, I wonder, was it all just a strange Lynchian dream?
While listening to some of AIR’s music, Jean-Benoit Dunckel suggests drinking:
Sexy Boy: Whiskey & Coke
La Femme d’Argent: A glass of good Champagne
Cherry Blossom Girl: Sake, since the song was written in Japan
AIR will be on tour in the U.S. next month and Dunckel’s solo project, Darkel, will release an album this January.